Archivist, Meet Records Manager. Records Manager, Meet Archivist. Part I: The State of the Matter

June 13th, 2014

A Lukewarm Background

An acquaintance of mine works in a large corporation that includes an archives unit and a records management unit. There is no dialog between them. Pity. The archivist focuses on historical reference, preservation, and branding support. The records management people focus on retention schedules, destruction, and compliance. While this company is not emblematic of all institutions, the general dialog, or lack thereof, between the two disciplines has room for improvement. Granted, some connections have been established, as will be shown, despite the fact that operational focus areas for records managers and archivists are different. There are law firms with no archives and manuscript repositories with no formal records program: not every institution has an overwhelming need for both entities. But those that do have both, and the respective agents for each service, may want to rethink the relationship. An indifferent or condescending attitude between the two disciplines serves no constructive purpose.

I’ve had the opportunity to work for several years on both sides, leading and working within two “records AND archives” teams. Outside of these teams, the overriding visible evidence among the two professions points more to silos than to cooperatives. Many archivists (and their institutional reimbursement caps) cannot afford the four-digit fees to attend the major records management conferences (the Bureau of Labor Statistics and several .com job banks indicate that mean and median records manager salaries typically exceed archivist salaries on the order of $30K per year).  Some archivists renounce all things business (i.e., “the Man”), perhaps to a fault. Conversely, some records managers don’t appreciate historical artifacts and cultural heritage when they’re obsessed only with the bottom line, potential lawsuits, and risk management, also perhaps to a fault.

At the recent (and otherwise excellent) Managing Electronic Records (MER) conference in Chicago, the trained archivist could hear prevalent and annoying use of the term “archive” in the IT sense, equivalent with an email or listserv “archive,” and by no means an historical one (i.e., what archivists are all about). While archivists have come to expect this from the IT folks, hearing it from fellow information managers on the records side doesn’t foster a warm and fuzzy feeling. Another trivial but careless and aggravating-to-archivists glitch—especially seen in the RM product literature—is the misuse of “archival” as a noun, e.g., “for your records management and archival.” Ugh.  A key and obvious differentiator is that records management is baked into the business and compliance functions of the institution, while archives foster historical material for the institutional, intellectual, and cultural memory. In its very first clause, the international standard for records management (ISO 15489) explicitly precludes archival records from the scope of its specifications. From this face-value standpoint, these are unrelated missions.

Archivists-as-records-managers don’t always get it, either. A survey of published college and university retention schedules shows more than one (they will go nameless here) that are clearly archivist-authored and archives-biased. They do not call out destruction of transactional and ephemeral records, but rather state only potentially historical record groups that should be retained “as needed” then sent to archives for review. One college “schedule” states that various departmental records are simply managed by their respective departments, without any prescription for duration. This is not a retention schedule (or possibly a clever safety valve so that the archivist can blame the respective departments if anything goes wrong). To be fair, records responsibilities in tight budget institutions can be foisted upon already-busy archivists, whose efforts are well intentioned, if under-informed and -resourced.

Some U.S. government professionals are no exception to this imperfect relationship, and rifts go back decades. The National Archives was placed under the auspices of the GSA in 1949, and a bitter union ensued: during the merger, Archivist of the United States Bob Warner condescendingly referred to records management as lowly governmental “housekeeping,”as opposed to sacred archival curation of the Crown Jewels. The separation of the Archives from the GSA in 1985 was hailed, not without reason, on the archives side of the house. Cross-profession government records snips and jeers linger on the listservs to this day.  Unfortunately.

Some Good News

That said, we should be careful not to overstate the lack of archives–records management connections. The Society of American Archivists has hosted a dedicated Records Management Roundtable group since 1996. And while it is unusual to discover in-depth records management treatments in the major literature by archivists, several seminal RM monographs concern themselves briefly with archival thinking (e.g., Carol Choksy’s excellent Domesticating Information). However, their archival conclusions (sometimes dismissive) may be challenged in American Archivist reviews and other archives literature. Acknowledgements, but not exactly a love fest.

More recently, we see encouraging trends between the professions, suggesting that an increased meeting of the minds is happening: in New England, ARMA Boston and New England Archivists (NEA) offer mutually reduced membership-based rates to event attendees. Furthermore, ARMA Boston’s June meeting consisted of a field trip to the Massachusetts Commonwealth Museum, for a speech by the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Archives, Commonwealth Museum and State Records Center. Reciprocally, NEA’s fall meeting will include a dedicated records management working session, facilitated by the current author.  A recent Society of Southwest Archivists conference featured a session titled “Records Management for Archivists: Embracing the Dark Side.” While some records people may take umbrage to the “dark side” reference (once again, implying “evil business” and “the Man”), the solid, Star Wars–themed slide show touches on some of the realities mentioned above and makes a case for more mutual understanding. In another cooperative example, a Princeton University records manager shredded about 300 boxes of over-retained administrative records to free up shelf space for Archival collections. In addition, the records management–archives discussion is international. There is undoubtedly mutual interest at the seams.

I have had the opportunity to co-establish and foster two benchmarking groups consisting of records managers and archivists from several institutions within the same industries: (1) government-funded R&D centers and (2) colleges and universities. Both groups organically evolved with the two disciplines from the get-go, based on the common discourse leading up to their establishment.  It became apparent that both disciplines read into information lifecycle management (ILM) and fall under the broader information management umbrella. Yes, archivists occasionally glazed over when retention schedules were discussed in these meetings, and records managers were appreciative but not as smitten by historical artifacts like incunabula during the archives discussions. Yet there was and is a strong sense of commonality, community, and mutual respect in all of these meetings.

At a fundamental level, the two disciplines have a good deal in common: a review of Generally Accepted Recordkeeping Principles—accountability, integrity, protection, compliance, availability, retention, disposition, and transparency—shows principles that are centrally relevant to archivists, except perhaps for RM compliance. Authenticity, integrity, protection, and retention, in particular, resonate highly within the archival mission. And the archival role of disposition, or weeding down collections, is often under-appreciated by those who contend that archivists are simply pack rats who want to keep everything.

So, what’s in it for archivists? What’s in it for records managers? What does the institution gain? Answers to these questions are coming in Part II.

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